I’ve never had two 5-star reads in a row – never mind three!
1) Schottenfreude, reviewed earlier this month.
2) The Boat – Nam Le (2009)
A collection of short stories written by one of the Folio Prize judges, read on the way to and during the festival. Looking at the awards it has garnered, I don’t think it hyperbolic to suggest that this book has won nearly every literary prize there is in Australia. And rightly so. I remember the buzz surrounding it on publication and I bought the book only for it to wait for 5 years before picking it up again. Kicking myself now of course. One of the strongest collections of short stories I’ve ever read. (And won’t it be interesting to compare it to the inaugural Folio Prize winning short story collection?)
Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. Speaking at the Folio Festival he said that he wasn’t interested in being the spokesperson for the Vietnamese immigrant, he wanted to explore more realities than that. So while the collection is bookended with Vietnamese experiences (the first, an autobiographical (?) story of a Vietnamese author at the Utah creative writing centre and the last, the harrowing experience of Vietnamese boat people), other pages are populated by an adolescent hitman in Columbia, an elderly man dying of bowel cancer, high-school kids coming to terms with the mortality of their mother and the perils of dating, evacuees from Hiroshima (before the bomb), and feminist resistance in Iran. The protagonists are all facing profound challenges and struggling to maintain control of their lives. The worlds they inhabit are skilfully drawn and the psychologies intense, given the background stresses and dilemmas.
Do I have a favourite story? Not really although, oddly, my least favourite Tehran Calling is proving to be the most memorable. Le admitted that this was the story in which place was the most sketchy. That may be so but the mood, the prevailing atmosphere of terror, brutality and claustrophobia is overwhelmingly oppressive. My breathing’s constricting just thinking about it. That being the author’s intention, I cannot but declare it a success.
I can’t find anything Le has published since. Is this a case of a successful debut being an impossible act to follow? I do hope not.
3) The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (2012)
Another debut which has received mega praise in the blogosphere since its release. I purposely avoided reading it until it became a book group choice. Our discussion began with each group member summarising the book in an adjective. Here are the results: enchanting, mystical, ethereal, magical, enigmatic, mysterious, whimsical, unputdownable. Only 2 dissenting voices: putdownable and confusing. You can’t please everyone but this pleased me.
There are oodles of positive blog reviews out there, so no need for me to repeat. What I will say though, is that in contrast to Le (who to be fair didn’t live in Vietname for long), Ivey’s novel reads like a love-letter to Alaska and her familiy’s chosen way of life (growing their own food and hunting caribou, moose and bear for meat). It was a revelatory read: Alaska not as harsh or as uninhabitable as I previously believed. (Still in no rush to migrate.) And I was transported – not to the 1920’s but further back in time. Life in these pages felt much less modern than the jazz age. Engaging characters and a mystery – plenty to discuss at book group, particularly what happened to Faina.
The group guffawed when I said I thought she’d melted! Perhaps I bought into the premise too much?